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WOVEN aims to help addicted moms

Posted 9:00 a.m. Saturday

— Amanda Sims feared she would be arrested for using Suboxone during her pregnancy. So she skipped prenatal care.

"I even thought about having my baby at home and all kinds of crazy stuff to avoid going to a real doctor or the hospital," she said, shaking her head from side to side. "I can't even believe I thought about trying to have him at home — but I didn't want to go to jail. I was scared."

Rachel Adams, coordinator for the Families Free WOVEN program, said Sims' story is all too familiar.

"We hear stories like Amanda's every day," Adams said recently. "Most of them don't even realize they are addicted until they see their baby (in) withdrawal, and then it hits them — and that's why we're here. To help moms manage life without substance abuse."

Families Free is a faith-oriented, community-based organization in Johnson City that provides free treatment, education and intervention services to women and families affected by substance abuse, incarceration and domestic instability. The WOVEN program is for women who have delivered, or are at risk for delivering, a drug-exposed infant.

Sims, a petite, dark-haired, 25-year-old single mother of three, delivered her son in December 2016. Within hours of delivery, Families Free was contacted.

Families Free gets referrals from the hospital or the Department of Children's Services. As soon as the referral is received, someone from WOVEN makes contact with the mom while she and her baby are still in the hospital.

"That way we can talk to them about what's involved with the program at Families Free and validate their role as a mother," Adams said. "Validating them is extremely important. Most of them feel guilty about delivering a drug-exposed baby and desperately need to know that they and their newborn can be helped."

Sims said she was ashamed and embarrassed that her baby was born drug-exposed because her older children were not.

"I don't know why I didn't get addicted when I had my daughter 10 years ago — because I was put on painkillers then," she said. "But when the doctor prescribed me Percocets when I had my 5-year-old, something clicked inside me. I was already hooked when he stopped giving them to me, so I started buying them on the street."

Because the painkillers were so easy to obtain, Sims said she took them as often as possible.

"It didn't take long before I was taking OxyContin, Roxies (Roxicodone) and Opana because the Percocets didn't work anymore."

The three drugs are opioid painkillers that can cause addiction, overdose or death.

"They were easy to get — too easy," Sims said. "I had friends who would go to Florida and get them to sell. I'd tell them what I wanted. And they'd get it for me for about $5 a pill."

Once she started taking the stronger drugs, it was hard to stop.

"I didn't plan to get hooked," Sims said. "But I did. And when the Roxies and Opanas didn't work anymore, I started taking Suboxone and kept taking it until I got pregnant again."

Suboxone is a prescription medicine used to treat adults who are addicted to opioids, but it also carries a high risk of dependence.

Sims said she was so concerned about her baby being born addicted that she tried to withdraw on her own.

The young woman crossed her forearms over her stomach, leaned forward and closed her eyes. She described the excruciating pain she suffered when she stopped taking the drug.

"I tried to get off Suboxone by myself, but it was the most painful thing I ever tried to do — and I knew I couldn't do it on my own. My body hurt, my bones hurt, every part of me hurt," she said. "I'd curl my hands up into a tight-fisted ball and hit myself in the legs to try and make the pain stop — but the only thing that made it go away was more Suboxone."

Sims said she couldn't bear the thought of her newborn suffering the same symptoms, which could also include seizures. Nor could she bear the thought of hearing him scream in pain. So she sought help with the OB-GYN division of Quillen East Tennessee State University Physicians.

ETSU OB-GYN in Johnson City, Tennessee, focuses on high-risk obstetrical problems, including drug addiction.

"I've seen babies go through withdrawal, and it's awful, just awful," Sims said. "I found out that ETSU OB-GYN weans moms off Suboxone while they are pregnant, so I went there. I was still coming off it when I had him, so that's why he had it in his system. They helped me, and because of them and the grace of God, my son only spent eight days in the NICU and didn't have to have any morphine."

Babies that are born with visible signs of addiction are most often given morphine while in the NICU. They are slowly weaned off the drug before they go home, which can take up to two months.

Adams said that as soon as Sims expressed her desire to be drug-free — as with all women who are referred to the program — she entered into the first part of WOVEN's three-part program.

"We have intensive, community-based case management to help the moms get to doctor's appointments (and) WIC appointments and to help them access resources in the community," Adams said. "We also help them get diapers, wipes and birth certificates."

WIC is a special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children that provides federal money to states for supplemental foods, health care referrals and nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding postpartum women. It also serves infants and children up to age 5 who are at nutritional risk.

The other two parts of the WOVEN program are parenting education and recovery support. Adams said the classes help promote nurturing and bonding between the mother and baby.

"Drug-exposed or addicted babies have special care needs," Adams said. "The moms need to learn how to care for their babies, and that can be really hard, especially when a mom is trying to withdraw herself."

The recovery support is individualized to each mom's needs.

"Some of them need help getting into an inpatient detox facility, some need extended parenting education, and some come to an intensive outpatient program at Families Free," Adams said. "Others might attend a motivational group. We help the women determine where they are in the process and go from there."

Lisa Tipton, executive director of Families Free, said the WOVEN program is different than the "normal" 28-day programs commonly used to help people recover from drug addiction.

"Each woman is in a different place in their recovery, and for most people, a 28-day program doesn't give them the tools they need to live drug-free," she said. "We're here to give moms the tools they need and teach them how to use those tools to remain drug-free."

According to Tipton, WOVEN is unique, as is its definition of success.

"Success isn't just about someone being drug-free," Tipton said. "Success can also look like a woman exploring what it will look like to go into recovery and struggling to make life changes for herself and her family."

Adams said success for some mothers is when they realize there are resources available to them or they begin to believe their lives can be different. And for others, it comes when they are drug-free or when they realize how long they have remained in the program. Others gain success when they realize how stable they have become.

Tipton said that the hope of those who run Families Free is that all the women they work with will choose abstinence.

"But it takes some women longer to get there than others — and that's OK," she said.

Two months after Sims' son was born, she was totally drug-free.

"Coming off Suboxone was one of the hardest things I've ever done," she said. "But with the help of WOVEN and the other women going through the program with me, I'm drug-free, and I feel like I can do anything."

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